Several years ago, when I was the Italian food consultant for the UK store, Marks and Spencer, on my visits to London they would take me out to lunch in trending Italian restaurants to get my feedback. I was usually unimpressed, but I still remember the lunch we enjoyed at Zafferano, in Belgravia.I had ordered large ravioli, stuffed with potato and mint, served with an enticing red pepper sauce. The ravioli were so delicious I had to shut my eyes as I savoured them, and although my Italian-trained palette would have preferred a less intrusive dressing, my companions raved about the sauce.
The then relatively unknown Italian chef, Giorgio Locatelli, opened Zafferano in 1995 and it became an instant success, breaking new ground with its emphasis on top quality, seasonal produce, often sourced from Italy. Giorgio soon earned a Michelin star which he has never lost, and in 2002 he opened Locanda Locatelli which became one of my favourite London haunts when I was missing Rome. This nearly back-fired on me when I was asked by the Italian food programme,Gambero Rosso, to play the Prosecutor on a TV mock trial of Italian restaurants abroad. They provided film clips to be presented as evidence, and as I was eloquently criticizing over-sauced, over-cooked pasta I suddenly realised they were showing, without knowing where it had been shot, Locanda Locatelli. I had to speedily change course and hail a great restaurant that was the exception to the rule, upholding Italian culinary religion in a heathen country.
Originally from Lombardia, in the north, Locatelli fell in love with Sicily when he visited for the first time in his thirties. He now returns every year with his family and say it has changed the way he cooks. He says cooking should not express the personality of the cook, but rather that of the land and the sea. Sicilian “dishes are not about clever transformations, they are about conducting and expressing the taste of the ingredients to the maximum, in the simplest way.” I always believe a convert to a religion is more fervent than one born to the belief, and Giorgio conveys the essence of Sicily brilliantly. One of his favourite Sicilian restaurants is Vittorio in Porto Palo near Menfi.
I am taking a small group to Sicily in October. We will be visiting many places mentioned in the book and sampling some of the great Sicilian dishes on our travels. We will be based in Siracusa and Palermo.